Training Tuesdays: Working out When Sick

I can never remember all the tried and true cliches about being sick. Is it feed a fever, starve a cold or vice versa*? Am I only supposed to work out if my symptoms are above my neck? What happens when you take daytime cold meds–which are, in my opinion, essentially speed mixed with some decongestant–and mask all of your symptoms? Then what?

Ah, the age-old question.
Ah, the age-old question.

All I know is right now I feel like I’m on the verge of getting a cold and am trying to do everything in my power to keep it from turning from a worry to reality. Usually, I am firmly in the camp of “if I can stand up, I can work out” but lately I’ve been struggling with motivation to workout so any excuse to skip a workout seems appealing. Also, every time I’ve pushed my workouts while battling a cold, I’ve ended up with the dreaded ongoing bronchial nightmare (i.e. months of hacking cough, congestion and alarmingly neon shades of phlegm).

I thought I’d actually do some digging into what the experts to say. As you know, I attempt to provide you with only the most thoroughly researched information (insert eye rolls here). It’s fascinating, really, the variance in information about working out with colds or the flu.  What it seems to boil down to is “it depends” which, as you can imagine, is not the degree of certainty I was looking for. Still, I will break down for you the highlights of my findings:

  • There is merit to the above the neck vs. below the neck claims: Most doctors seem to agree that if your symptoms are predominantly above the neck, such as sore throats, nasal congestion and watery eyes, you might be ok to work out. But below the neck symptoms like achy muscles, coughing or fevers are usually no-gos.
  • There are a LOT of caveats: A lot of what is and isn’t okay is going to depend on your current level of fitness and activity. If you’re already active, exercise may help, even if only giving you a boost of positive mental energy.  It’s also going to depend on the activity you’re choosing. A long endurance run while training for a marathon is different than opting for a short, slow-paced jaunt through the park.  Exercise means different things to different people.
  • There are some delightfully conflicting statements: Exercise generally helps immunity, but when your immunity is compromised by cold or flu, it will tend to further tax your immune system. Exercise can help clear sinus passages and airways, but can also cause congestion to worsen depending on duration and intensity of exercise.  Who doesn’t love a good paradox?
  • Lowering your workout intensity and listening to your body seems to be the most suitable course of action.  Take your workout down a notch and stop if activity is making you feel worse or overly exhausted.  Common sense, always there to point you to the most obvious of suggestions.

Sadly, this also means I should still be working out since, really, there’s little evidence to prove that my usual workout would lead to my cold worsening. I hate when science is out to get me.


*I Googled it. It’s feed a cold, starve a fever.


7 thoughts on “Training Tuesdays: Working out When Sick”

  1. I think you should rest and recover properly. Not wanting to work out and lack of energy are my warning signs that I need to take care of my body and give it a break. You might not like it and feel better in your head when working out, but payback can linger for months … better avoid the cold and an extra recovery day or even a week with reduced load.


  2. When sick or with painful muscle soreness, I rest and recover. I also look into active recovery : walk, hiking, gardening, yoga, cooking, lifting light weights at home ie any kind of non-strenuous workout.


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